Rhythm and Jews

he modern-day klezmer revival jazzes up the music of tradition

Of the modern klezmer bands, the Klezmatics are probably the most innovative, though they began as strict traditionalists. Led by arranger-composer Frank London (who has worked with the likes of David Byrne, LL Cool J, and They Might Be Giants), their albums Rhythm and Jews and Jews with Horns echo the past but hint at a future in which klezmer begins to absorb everything from punk to rap. London's sound track for the documentary The Shvitz--a 1994 film about old Jewish men who hang out in the steam baths to shvitz (which is Yiddish for "sweat") and kibbutz (that is, visit)--even features house music with a Yiddish accent, a novelty that eventually overcomes such a derogatory description.

"A lot of people who felt turned off by the cute and kitschy thing about klezmer were happy they found us because we weren't embarrassing them," Svigels says. "The whole question of authenticity is silly because any music that lives must change. Otherwise, it atrophies and dies."

There are only two klezmer bands in Texas, both of which reside in Austin--Bill Averbach's Austin Klezmorim and Rubinchik's Kapelye (which means "Rubin's Band," appropriate since it's fronted by Bad Liver Mark Rubin). Rubin actually began playing in the Austin Klezmorim and performed on the band's self-released 1994 CD East of Odessa (which can be purchased in a synagogue gift-shop near you), lending his talents on stand-up bass, banjo, and tuba. But the Klezmorim is more of a "commercial outfit," Rubin says, an old-style band that performs at weddings and bar-mitzvahs and is geared toward the older, more traditional repertoire.

"I don't do that stuff," Rubin says. "And because I don't, I'm given a great amount of freedom. A wedding band is going to have to play requests from the bride and groom. You're gonna have to play 'Hava Nagila' and 'Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.' They're part of the canon, but it's a real narrow band. There's room within the genre for much expansion.

"You're going to have [klezmer] evolve and react. Every time you think it's going to get more modern, there's some moldy figs coming along and playing it like they think it used to be. I'm weary of revivals. Being in a bluegrass band, or a band perceived as a bluegrass band, people are always labeling us as part of a revival. It's not a revival as much as the Bad Livers see ourselves as part of a continuum. We see ourselves as part of the tradition but also as contemporary."

Rubin--who once played in Killbilly and has played not only with the post-bluegrass Bad Livers, but also with former Glass Eye frontwoman Kathy McCarty, and the traditional border conjunto of Santiago Jimenez Jr.--has found that middle ground on which the pre-immigrant Eastern European Jews, the border Mexicans, and the Texas-Germans dance together. It's all fiddle and accordion music to him, a Texas sound where the definitions are less strict and the possibilities are more wide open.

The make-up of Rubinchik's Kapelya reflects that, including the likes of Erik Hokkanen (the fiddle player who has won the Kerrville Folk Festival award for best instrumentalist), singer Rachel Rhodes (who sings in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian), and Mike Maddux (who plays accordion with the Austin Klezmorim).

"I'm nuts about accordion and fiddle music, and here you get your fill," Rubin says. "All good stuff comes from the same place, and everybody in our band comes from these wild and diverse backgrounds, and it's hard to define what makes a tune Jewish. That's a real sticky wicket for me. I'll admit I'm a real novice at this whole bag, and it'll probably take me years to get it right.

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